VIDEO: Soft skills and metrics work hand in hand in HR at Maple Leaf Foods

Jeff Cattel

While HR professionals often excel at utilizing and developing soft skills, the new realities of the business world means that human resources departments are increasingly under pressure to add metrics and analytics to their programs. Cheryl Fullerton, VP of Total Rewards and Performance Management at Maple Leaf Foods, says that this shift to focus on data and analytics, doesn't mean that HR professionals need to abandon the soft skills that often led them to a career in HR in the first place. "These are really important skills and we're not asking HR people to get rid of them," Fullerton said. "What we want to do is make sure the HR professionals in the organization aren't over relying on those soft skills, and that they're balancing that with very business-focused analytical abilities as well."

Watch our video with Cheryl Fullerton above or check out the text version of the Q&A below.


You'll be leading a session at HR Metrics Canada that looks at the need for turning HR into a data driven unit. How have you worked to turn HR at Maple Leaf Foods into a business segment that really is focused on data?

There's two things I want to point to: One is organizationally, we already have a culture where we expect employees to be fact based in their decision making, so we have an expectation that whoever comes to the table is going to come to the table with facts to back up any assertions or requests that they bring. Secondly, and probably most important for the HR function: We did an in depth project a couple of years ago to create a people strategy. So when you're creating a data-driven function in HR, you have to start with what you're trying to accomplish. With the people strategy, we did the linkage between business strategy, people strategy, people initiatives, metrics to track those people initiatives and business impact from the people initiatives. And taking the whole HR organization through that exercise over a period of about 6 months really embedded an understanding of what we were trying to achieve and how we were using metrics in order to track whether we were on track to achieve it.

Getting more in depth about the strategy side of things. HR is a business segment that excels in dealing with soft skills. In an effort to focus on data driven metrics, do HR professionals need to dramatically rethink how they do their jobs and potentially abandon those old habits that favor soft skills?

That's a really good question. The short answer is no. HR people got into this particular function because we are good at listening and reading people and we have a strong bias to help other people succeed by helping others develop their skills and figure out career paths for them. These are really important skills and we're not asking HR people to get rid of them. What we want to do is make sure the HR professionals in the organization aren't over relying on those soft skills and that they're balancing that with very business-focused analytical abilities as well. We want to take the information that we glean from those soft skills—reading and listening and understanding people—and partner that with other information collected from analytics from wherever we can get them within the business, and then make sound business decisions from all of the information.

One of the big components that people really latch onto or think of when you talk about metrics, especially in HR, is this idea that you are going to start putting specific markers and criteria on things, such as identifying characteristics of a high potential employee. When you set those specific markers, do you then risk that employees will only chase those specific markers? Is that something you've found at Maple Lead Foods?

Yes. When you pick metrics and you hold them up as being important to know, people are definitely going to chase those metrics, particularly if you tie incentive pay to them or performance results to them. And we do that here. I think the secret is to make sure you pick those right few metrics to put up in front of people. If you measure too many and you put too many forward as being critical to the business, people won't be able to focus their attention on really what the most important thing is. When you pick those few and you queue them up as this is what is critical for us, employees will chase them. But if you pick the right ones, they'll chase them for the benefit of the organization because then you'll get the results you'll need. I've got some great stories that I'm interested in talking about at the conference in a couple of months about how really queuing up those key metrics in Maple Leaf Foods has driven all of the right behaviors from the HR team to track business results.

I know people watching this and people who will be going to the conference, they may think the change from their current institutional framework to one that is data driven is too big or difficult a leap to take. People like to start small and find out what things they can do along the way. What are the first steps that HR leaders should take when they want to change and add more of a focus on metrics at their organization?

I tend to think of it in three different buckets. The first bucket being help your HR organization understand why it's important. So it's very much educational. It's showing how without the right metrics to say whether you're on track, you risk getting off track and going too far down the path before you get back on. If that education piece isn't there, you're not going to go anywhere. The second piece is building the skill and the capability. You can hire HR professionals who have that skill, that analytical process orientation. You can also build it. We're a Six Sigma organization and we've had great success in building process and analytic expertise in our HR function by providing tools and coaching. Then, the third bit is really making sure the organization is prepared to speak with human resources in perhaps a different way than they're used to. We own part of that, too. We own making sure that we are crisp in our communication in bringing data—the right kind of data—into conversation. And also, if we feel the business around it isn't ready to hear that, to try and influence them to understand how we can progress in that area.